Movie Genres: Horror Films and 3D

The horror film has long played a leading role in the evolution of 3-D cinema. The visceral nature of the genre and the format’s immersive effects go together like, well, slashers and scream queens. In fact, the first big hit of the “Golden Age” of 3-D was the classic chiller House of Wax (1953), starring Vincent Price. Audiences were captivated by the film’s stereoscopic visuals and Price’s performance in a role that would make him virtually synonymous with the genre.


Many of the most successful films of the first 3-D boom were, if not outright horror, jolting genre exercises such as Bwana Devil (1952), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Mad Magician (1954) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954).


Perhaps the most significant of this crop of 3-D fright-fests was The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the story of a team of archaeologists menaced by a prehistoric half-man, half-fish. Creature’s use of 3-D cinematography was limited but memorable. It spawned two sequels and its iconic Gill Man character rightfully took its place among the ranks of Universal’s famed monsters.


For various technical and financial reasons, Hollywood’s first 3-D craze was brief, but horror kept the format’s flame lit over ensuing decades in low-budget independent films. In 1961, a Canadian B-movie called The Mask chilled U.S. audiences with its eerie hallucinatory sequences shot in 3-D. Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973) combined 3-D horror with another popular genre of the ‘70s: softcore porn.


In the early 1980s, three-dimensional bogeymen stalked mainstream cinemas once again. Friday the 13th Part III (1982) was loaded with innovative 3­D imagery hailed for “going past the lens”—an effect in which objects appear to thrust from the screen into the theater. The slasher sequel nearly doubled the box office of the franchise’s previous installment and paved the way for major studio releases Jaws 3-D and Amityville 3-D the following year.


Due to the high costs and lingering technological challenges associated with the format, 3-D once again fell out of favor with studios and theater owners in the mid­1980s. 3-D cinema was largely relegated to IMAX documentaries for most of the next 20 years. Gradually, however, the obstacles limiting widespread 3-D exhibition in the United States have been overcome. Today, the format is more attractive than ever before to the industry, artists and audiences.


Innovations in camera technology have reduced the cost of shooting in 3­D and allow filmmakers to create more exciting visual effects. And audiences are no longer subjected to the old headache and eyestrain-inducing red and blue (“anaglyph”) glasses. The predominant 3-D formats today, Real D and Dolby 3D Digital Cinema, use polarized glasses that are comfortable and provide crystal clear images.


3-D presentations of films such as Polar Express (2004), Chicken Little (2005), Beowulf (2007) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) have dramatically outperformed their “flat” screenings. In 2009 alone, no fewer than nine animated 3-D films are scheduled for theatrical release. Major franchises such as Shrek, Cars, Kung Fu Panda and Toy Story will make the leap to 3-D in their next installments.


Given the format’s recent successes and promising new technologies on the horizon, the combination of 3-D and horror is likely to keep audiences on the edge of their seats for years to come.